Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu nationalist
When logic snaps, rational discourse stumbles. Why is it perfectly acceptable to applaud a Muslim nationalist, but denigrate a Hindu nationalist? Either both terms are right, or both wrong.
Mahatma Gandhi gave "Muslim nationalism" institutional credibility when, in the fractured decade after the Khilafat movement, Muslims who believed in him formed the All-India Nationalist Muslim Party on 27 and 28 July 1929, with Dr M.A. Ansari at the helm. Our present vice president, Hamid Ansari, belongs to this family.
Gandhi was father of an ideology that knit the groundwork of modern India. His moral compass was set on a firm axis: politics without religion was immoral. Among the first to be impressed by this proposition were the maulvis who later banded under Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind; their alliance would flower during the non-cooperation struggle. Hindu and Muslim are birth identities; they do not change, unless one becomes an atheist. But nationalism, a political concept, can vary. Gandhi did not. From 1915, the year he entered Indian public life, to 1948, when he was assassinated, he believed that India must be a land where all faiths co-existed as equals, guided by sarva dharma sambhav.
Gandhi's nationalism was the antithesis of communalism. He was distressed to the point of agony by the slow drift within the Muslim elite towards separatism. This culminated in partition when Jinnah reduced "Muslim nationalism" to "Muslim nation". It was a visible reduction, philosophically, intellectually and finally geographically. Gandhi promised Muslims honour and equality in a nation from Khyber to Chittagong; Jinnah's prescription eventually reduced Pakistan to a sliver of land on either side of the Indus, wracked by fundamentalism and riven by insecurity.
The difference between "Hindu nationalism" and "Hindu nation" is equally uncomplicated. If anyone wants to be a Hindu nationalist, offer a warm welcome; if the call is for a Hindu nation, point out that religion is ineffective as a basis for nationhood. Pakistan is a good example. Indeed, if religion worked as a glue, why on earth would there be 22 Arab nations? Hindu extremism existed in Gandhi's time, but it never got much traction beyond the fringe; and it could not, ipso facto, seek secession.
Gandhi would have been puzzled by any suggestion that Hinduism was an obstacle to secularism; his Hinduism was an inexhaustible well of brotherhood, just as his colleague Maulana Azad offered Islam as a superb rationale for inter-faith harmony. Both used a faith-influenced dialectic almost unconsciously. Hindu-majority India is not secular because Gandhi was secular; Gandhi was secular because India is secular.
Gandhi was proud to be a Hindu. He promised Ram Rajya, not some variation of a fashionable western dictum, whether Marxist or Fabian. Ram Rajya was a metaphor for prosperity and equality, not subjugation. Gandhi did not shy away from caste. His tongue only partly in cheek, he told the Shafi faction of the Muslim League on 22 February 1931: "Brethren, I am abania, and there is no limit to my greed. It had always been my dream and my heart's desire to speak not only for 21 crores but for 30 crores of Indians." He was answering the charge that he spoke only for Hindus.
Nor did Gandhi's disciple and heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, think that the prefix 'Pandit' would stain his status as a secular icon. Privately, Nehru was more agnostic than believer, but learnt from Gandhi that he could not sneer at, let alone abandon, his Brahmin identity. India is a land of the faithful. Those who today feel 'Pandit' might be an embarrassment have not seen Durga Puja in secular Calcutta.
Strangely, those Muslim League stalwarts who were determined to parade every mark of their religious identity as a fundamental right, spread the canard that Gandhi's Ram Rajya would enslave Muslims. We see variations all the time, among far lesser beings, as vocal networks control debate, and stoke a fear psychosis that suits those who think the Muslim vote is better sought through fear than development.
The insidious power of hysteria sent Indian Muslims en masse towards the separatist Muslim League in the 1946 elections. Gandhi was reviled and taunted along the way. An important caveat is necessary, however. The 1946 franchise was restricted; only about 11% had the right to vote: landowners, rate-payers, graduates; the elite. How would elections have gone if Gandhi's masses, the poor, who often have better political judgement than those better off, had voted?
Faith does not make us communal, human nature does. A politician has as much right to be a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian as any other citizen. Any doubt about an aspirant to power can be cleared by a simple question: is he committed tosarva dharma sambhav or not? If the answer is unclear, vote for someone else.
Let those Indians who want to pray, do so; let those who want to watch television instead, switch on. Faith is a freedom. Let us celebrate this freedom with a smile, not a snarl.